HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

Creating a New Medina

Adeel Hussain provides a critical review of Dhulipala’s new CUP text on the formation of Pakistan, arguing that the text shows more about contemporary Indian politics than tell us what really happened.

Venkat Dhulipala, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 544pp.

Pratab Bhanu Mehta called him brilliant. Faisal Devji called him intellectually impoverished. One liberal Pakistani accused him of dishonesty on a weekly basis. An Indian counterpart declared that someone had finally narrated India’s birth pangs as-they-really-happened. To say the least, Venkat Dhulipala’s revamped 2008 doctoral thesis, recently published under the catchy title Creating a New Medina has polarized responses. Sprinkled with sufficient primary material to fully stock a university library, it comes as no surprise that the author worked over the manuscript for more than a decade before releasing this mammoth text. For this reviewer at least, his time thinking about the issues at stake has not quite resulted in the seismic shift in studies of India and Pakistan that he claims to have accomplished.

Dhulipala’s argument that Pakistan was widely discussed and deliberated as an Islamic State as opposed to a secular homeland for Muslims on Indian soil, strikingly resembles common chipboards from the historiographical construction market, which scholars on both sides of the border have used for decades to seal their leaking roofs. Instead of properly contextualising how well-nestled his argument is within such scholarly gestures, Dhulipala insists to have invented the wheel anew and to have rendered irrelevant the ‘orthodoxy’ in the field. That the orthodoxy he identifies developed as a response to similar arguments is not mentioned. Far from arriving at a smooth synthesis of these divergent reverberations, Dhulipala brazenly shape-shifts one with the other, hoping nobody would look closely at the sleight of hand.

Pakistan’s creation has offered a hospitable resting place for historians to warm themselves in the mellow afterglow of the explosive events surrounding the first modern state where nationality was measured against religious affinity. While the second state to promote a similar political form wherein religion and nationality collapsed––Israel––purged large parts of the native population from the place they called home and undertook the awkward task of seducing a disparate global community “back” to a promised holy land, Pakistan sits uncomfortably with the assumption that there was anything particularly Islamic or sacred about its geography. Ajmer, Delhi, Agra, Deoband, all in their own way connected to some discernible materiality that may have boiled up sacred passions, came out on the wrong side of the border. Pakistan took her first breaths in the territory made up of Muslim majority regions. Sacredness of soil, as the Sikh experience with the evisceration of their gurus birth-places underlines painfully, was not the crucial determining factor for judicious bureaucrats slicing Pakistan from India with an hypnotic gaze on numbers and cartography.

This fact alone favours the straightforward supposition that cutting Pakistan out of India was more of a real-political drama than some fervent divine interlude. A thorn in the foot of historians pushing for a Muslim Sonderweg in India, such empirical facts have however not halted the flourishing art of locating the emergence of Muslim particularity way back into a nebulous past. But even if we are to generously grant these tin-soldiers their big toss and accept that over the centuries Hindus and Muslims repeatedly clashed over religious issues, such events offer little guidance in historical analyse on the subcontinents shoah, partition violence. With its modern genocidal fantasies, large-scale religious cleansing, and military precision, this theatrical manifestation of violence is perhaps better understood as a specific twentieth century ulceration. Scholars fighting against such static assumptions around the reheating of sentiments across distant temporal plains––where nothing ever changes––have convincingly argued that Indian Muslims were always too fragments to constitute a homogenous political block; there was no vessel of ideological juice from which they drank collectively; and even if we are to cede Muslims doctrinal purity derived from a singular sacred code it may have well been limited to everyday ritual conduct with little bearing on large-scale political events.

Dhulipala butchers away some nuance and complexity of bygone scholarship, with his eyes squarely fixed on certain clerics and political journalists who had migrated to Pakistan, only to find themselves out of suitable employment, turning to bad history writing instead. These public men––and they are all men; the few times nameless women appear it is in the context of ‘abduction’, ‘getting slapped’, ‘purdah’, ‘conversion’, ‘poor’, old’, and men ‘educating them’––constitute the luminaries of what Dhulipala colloquially refers to as a ‘public sphere’ in early to mid-twentieth century India. However, Dhulipala throws in the public sphere without expanding his methodological foundations at any length, and almost in a hit and run fashion, simply points to the late Cambridge historian C.A. Bayly’s findings to make sense of information flows in overwhelmingly illiterate societies. Stirring Bayly together with Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere, and a dash of Amartya Sen’s weirdly boastful anthropological insights that Indian’s are (and have always been) intrinsically ‘argumentative’ does not translate easily into all chewed up leaflet in the Lucknow archives magically acquiring historical significance. Most of the stuff was probably just marginal and perhaps meticulously collected due to a phobic relationship the colonial state had developed with India’s Muslims. Dhulipala’s usage of the public sphere as a catchall solution to overcome the conceptual hurdles inherent in his argument is a bitter pill to swallow.

While Dhulipala maintains in the introduction that his essential task was to instil some ideological current into Pakistan’s national project, which at times has been said to lack any sustained imagination, he ends up going back to a systematic pigeonholing of Indian Muslims reminiscent of nineteenth century colonial administrators. Given that from the outset his approach may appear laudable, Dhulipala reserves all rational and progressive impetus to the political actors of the All India National Congress and his great rediscovery, the reluctant constitutional father of the Indian Republic, B.R. Ambedkar. Celebrating the Untouchable leader’s 1940 book on Pakistan for finally bringing ‘sanity, semblance and order’ into an otherwise messy ideological affair, Dhulipala leaves out that Ambedkar’s book was written to counterweigh his own frustration to unite India’s minorities––Muslims, Dalits and Sikhs––against the Congress party. This may be why Ambedkar was exceptionally brash towards Muslims, openly questioning their mental capability to participate in modern pluralist democratic structures. Muslim loyalties, we learn from Ambedkar, were always already predisposed to some holy land well outside India. All this could have come verbatim from the notorious anti-Semitic journal Der Stürmer, but most scholars would hesitate to cite from these pages as insightful descriptions of German Jewry. That Dhulipala posits Ambedkar’s book as an authoritative framework for his further study into the nationalist moment remains at best questionable.

Dhulipala further claims that particularly the learned imams, clustered together in educational camps financially depended on the Crown, rallied enthusiastically and in large numbers behind Pakistan’s demand, eventually ironing out the liberal idealism of her founding fathers. Think only of the most audible slogan during Muslim League conferences, ‘pakistan ka matlab kiya? lailahaillalah!’ (What is the meaning of Pakistan? …). For far too long we have readily shoved these clerics into the Gandhian camp, when in fact, Dhulipala asserts, many outspokenly favoured the creation of an Islamic state propelled by the “sharia”. Looking at Pakistan today, one is hard pressed not to close the book with a self-righteous grin that in-time Muslim nationalists would get banged.

Certainly, it does not require a genius to unpack such religious slogans with the toolkit of conventional history methodology: when people say religion what they really mean is something else. This-is-really-that. Religion just steps in as an insignificant placeholder––a smokescreen of sorts––masking darker processes and objectives any leftist with brahmanical right-thinking would firmly fix in a materialist landscape. Jobs, political power, the neighbour’s wife. Muslim protesters shouting religious slogans in hot zeal in the 40s––from the perspective of this universal truth––were no different from supporters of Donald Trump; while both rallied under the banner of an impressively amateurish leadership their ideological position can hardly be pinned down to the cheers and jingoes’ made in public. The deeper problems, as bread-and-butter history would have it, are to be found in precarious economic conditions or in more heady accounts in a Heideggerian up-rootedness of the human subject in late capitalism. So far, so Marx.

However, to emphasise ideology beyond self-interest as an impetus for political action of colonised communities can hardly result in taking such war cries entirely at face value. When Shabir Ahmed Usmani, a renegade cleric who owed much of his fame to revolting against his master’s directive to throw in his weight with the All India Congress Party, used the terms “Pakistan” and “Medina” interchangeably, Dhulipala ecstatically jumps to the conclusion that Muslims had finally revealed their true colours. Essentially a theological state from its inception, Dhulipala aims to stabilise this claim by peppering in political leaflets, countless letters from common men (the ‘aam aadmi’) and as a crown witness, the only person with a decent political clout, the young Raja of Mahmudabad. A princeling with deep pockets and vague political ambitions who had been groomed as Jinnah’s successor well into the early 40s.

Dhulipala takes pains to highlight the ways in which the Raja dreamt of the creation of a Muslim theocracy. Conveniently, he leaves out that the Raja’s religious leanings were the reason that Jinnah dropped him from the higher echelons of the League’s leadership. And even after the Raja publicly recanted his boyish flirtations with the sharia––some years before Pakistan was founded––he could not tie knots with Jinnah again. Even the most ardent fighters propagating a theological state that Dhulipala casts for this humdrum theatre, at close inspection, reveal cracks and resist an easy folding into his conceptual script.

Roughly a decade ago, in two articles published in the journals Modern Asian Studies and the Indian Economic and Social History Review, Dhulipala had proposed this thesis, resulting in a frosty to lukewarm response. With the decimation of the Indian National Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the meteoric rise of the Hindu strongman Narendra Modi, things took a significant turn. Liberal media outlets in desperate need to whitewash the blood-tainted historical legacy of Congress rule found a willing participant in Dhulipala to promote their political project. It is quite telling, therefore, that when interviewed by the Indian journalist Karan Thapar for a special Independence Day edition of ‘Nothing But the Truth’, Dhulipala felt nationalistically emboldened to warn the Indian public outright: “Pakistan should be a cautionary tale for us, especially for those who want to make India into a Hindu Pakistan”. In this way, it seems to me that Dhulipala narrative has to be seen just as much in light of contemporary Indian politics, and not just a naive scholarly attempt to reconstruct ‘what really happened’.

While Dhulipala’s offers us insights into Muslim thinking in the United Provinces, the idea of Pakistan––for him––signifies but an anachronistic desire of shrill (and easily excitable) colonial subjects marching for an obscure religious glory; a line of reasoning that remains glaringly detached from the Indian political spirit, the political language of the twentieth century, and current academic debate.


Adeel Hussain has recently submitted his PhD in legal history and political thought at the University of Cambridge and is currently clerking for the higher district court at Frankfurt/Germany. He tweets @adeel_hussain7

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